The horror genre and its subgenre, the slasher film is often relegated to the fringe of film discussions. Outwardly, it would seem odd to include a horror film into a discourse about its relation to classical Hollywood cinema. Nevertheless, John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween bears remarkable similarities to classical Hollywood cinema, as well as some noteworthy differences. In order to better frame the analysis, a summation of Halloween will be necessary, as well as a brief look at the peculiar nuances of the horror genre itself. There are two forms worth looking at when discussing a film: narrative form and style. This paper will assess Halloween’s narrative form and style in relation and differentiation from classical Hollywood cinema. Some of those elements of narrative form are characters’ development, goal orientation, and conflict; as well as other forms such as repetition, foreshadowing, and closure. In addition, the salient styles are the various aspects of mise-en-scène, lighting, camera movement, and the diegetic and non-diegetic sounds and music. Finally, this paper will look at Carpenter’s use of deep focus as a divergence from classical Hollywood cinema.
Halloween is about Michael Myers. At the age of six, Michael Myers killed his fifteen-year-old sister, Judith Myers, with a knife. At which point, he was incarcerated at Smith’s Grove Warren County Sanitarium. For fifteen years, he did not speak. While there, he was under the care of Dr. Sam Loomis (played by the brilliant Donald Pleasence), whom was hoping to take Myers to court to keep him locked up. Instead, he escaped and began stalking Laurie Strode (played by the scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends. Not long after, he kills Laurie’s friends Annie and Lynda. After a few failed attempts by Michael to kill Laurie, Dr. Loomis saves her by shooting Michael six times and causing him to fall off a balcony. The film ends with the disappearance of Michael’s body.
Suffice it to say, the horror genre is quite distinct from other genres. The reason for this is the stated purpose of a horror film: to scare you. In order to achieve this, a “monster” figure is the manifestation of such trepidation in the film viewer. A conventional horror film practice is to have characters that doubt the very existence of the monster and a lone character voicing for its existence. The slasher subgenre in particular, juxtaposes a superhuman killer with a conceived normalized locale. Furthermore, makeup and special effects are an instrumental component to any horror film. In essence, the horror film is distinct from other genres because every aspect from the character to certain camera angles to the music works together to get the viewing audience to emote in some way – whether it is shock, disgust or fright. Halloween undoubtedly, follows many of the genres conventions and as matter of fact, created the slasher subgenre by establishing rules that would be followed in later films like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street (although many would contend that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is the real father of the slasher film).
In The Wizard of Oz, per classical Hollywood cinema’s narrative form, Dorothy is the epitome of goodness and the Wicked Witch represents evilness. Similarly, Halloween has two characters that are good and evil in Laurie Strode representing good and Michael Myers representing evil. Laurie Strode is very shy, innocent and in contrast to her two friends Annie and Lynda, not promiscuous. In addition, she cares about school as evidenced by her concern early in the film that she forgot her chemistry book. She also is more responsible than Annie is as it pertains to babysitting because she ends up babysitting both Tommy and Lindsey. Of course, she does have a flaw, as Dorothy did in her irrational desire to leave Kansas and Aunt Em. There is a scene in Halloween where Laurie smokes marijuana with Annie on the way over to Tommy’s house. Nevertheless, she is the hero in the film because the viewer wants to root for her against such stark evilness in Michael Myers. Just as in The Wizard of Oz, the viewer wants good to prevail over evil. Furthermore, thematically, many contend that since Laurie, the less promiscuous of the friends survives, that the film is sending a message that abstinence is good.
Michael Myers is an evil character because he is a killer. Perhaps the best example of this evilness is the way in which he calmly kills a dog because of its continued barking. In the film, he stalks his victims by following them wherever they go and watching their activities from afar. Many of these moments come at a time when the person he is stalking is either naked or having sex. He also enjoys tricking his victims, like when he pretended to be Lynda’s boyfriend Bob. Repeatedly throughout the film, he is referred to as The Boogeyman and Tommy mentions to Laurie that, “You can’t kill The Boogeyman.” His persistence is clear when Laurie stabs him in the neck with a sewing needle, pokes him in the eye with a coat hanger, stabs him in the chest with a butcher knife; and when Dr. Loomis shoots him six times and he falls off the balcony. In other words, killing evil is impossible and this theme is instrumental to the film and its ending.
Three characters have goal orientation and inner and outer journeys. First, Laurie Strode’s goal, once she learns of Michael’s existence, is to survive and in the process, protect Tommy and Lindsey. Her physical (outer) journey to accomplish this goal is by literally running from Michael Myers, from one house to another and from the downstairs to the upstairs. However, her inner journey is learning that she has the strength to confront evilness and protect the children. For instance, she shows great courage and fortitude in the way she protects them and stands up to Michael. Michael’s goal is to kill Laurie, Annie and Lynda – the outer journey is by following them wherever they go. It is unclear what (if any) inner character development is occurring with Michael because he does not speak. Furthermore, the most villainous of villains normally do not have inner struggles or thoughts – just the outward physical push (like the Wicked Witch). Dr. Sam Loomis’s goal is to stop Michael Myers because he knows Michael is evil and very dangerous. Therefore, his outer journey is by following Michael from Smith’s Grove to Haddonfield. In addition, he must convince Sheriff Brackett that Myers is in Haddonfield. His inner journey is that of redemption, similar to Doc Boone in Stagecoach trying to make up for his alcoholism by delivering Mrs. Mallory’s baby. Dr. Loomis feels responsible for Michael’s escape and believes it is his duty to catch and defeat him.
Conflict arises when the aforementioned goals and journeys clash. For instance, impeding Michael’s desire to kill Laurie is Laurie’s desire to survive and Dr. Loomis’s desire to catch Michael. In order for Dr. Loomis to catch Michael, he has to find him. He thinks Michael will come back to his home where he killed his sister fifteen years prior, so he stakes out behind a bush. Michael never comes, leading Dr. Loomis to wander aimlessly until Tommy and Lindsey come running and screaming out of the house. Even once Dr. Loomis finds Michael and the ultimate conflict of the film occurs, he is unable to kill him. Throughout the conflict between Laurie and Michael, Michael places obstacles in Laurie’s way. He displays his victims to Laurie to frighten her and then locks her in the house. More conflict occurs when Laurie manages to escape the house and runs back to the other house, but she does not have the keys to open the door.
Repetition and foreshadowing are also important to the narrative form. In the beginning of the film, Michael kills his sister with a knife while wearing a clown costume. Later, as an adult, he is wearing a mask and using a knife to kill. In addition, when Michael stalks someone, he breathes heavily and the film utilizes this motif often. The reason for this might be to suggest Michael’s subconscious drive for sexual gratification given that he stalks women and often when they are naked or having sex. In Stagecoach, there is a scene with a shot of the Indians and that foreshadows the coming conflict with the passengers of the stagecoach. Foreshadowing occurs in Halloween as well. First, the stalking itself signifies that Michael will eventually strike as the film progresses. There is also a scene where Annie is talking to her father, the Sheriff, about knives, rope and a mask stolen at a hardware store. This foreshadows Michael’s use of the knife even though the Sheriff speculates that kids did it. Finally, as mentioned before, Tommy tells Laurie that you cannot kill The Boogeyman. Not long after, that comes to fruition by Michael’s disappearance post-six bullets to the chest at the end of the film.
To conclude with narrative form, Halloween diverges slightly from classical Hollywood cinema in its closure. In the end, Michael Myers is presumably still alive. Thus, the film is left open-ended and without classical closure. This is likely because the horror genre and the slasher genre specifically, often have a plethora of sequels. As such, superhuman killers, being superhuman, never die or if they do, they come back in some fashion. Some might say Halloween does have closure however. Thematically, Michael Myers represents a force – evilness – and that evilness infinitely exists. Therefore, the most one could do is run, like Laurie, from the evil and avoid being engulfed by it. In the end, Laurie does overcome the evil (with the help of Dr. Loomis) because Michael is no longer attacking her.
Stylistically, Halloween plays on the conventions of the horror genre well as it relates to mise-en-scène. First, the setting is paramount to the mood and tone of Halloween. In one example of classical Hollywood cinema settings, Our Hospitality utilized the Canfield House as the perfect setting for the gags in the film. The location in Halloween is Haddonfield – a seemingly idyllic suburban town. The opening illustrates this in the establishing shot of Haddonfield with rows and rows of normal-looking houses. As the horror film convention goes, placing a superhuman in such a normalized locale makes for an intriguing dichotomy. Thematically, Michael Myers himself grew up in the traditional nuclear family (husband and wife with two kids), but still becomes the embodiment of evil lending to the notion of infinite evilness that is central to the film’s message.
Another important aspect of the mise-en- scène is the costumes. The mask that Michael Myers wears gives him that iconic image. It is a William Shatner mask spray painted white. Thusly, Michael Myers can literally become The Shape, which is the credit given to him at the end of the film. In other words, the white of the mask allows for another horror film convention – the manipulation of shadows and lighting to emphasize the utter terror of the white mask. The mask serves the thematic function of allowing the viewer to project on to this blank surface whatever image or idea he or she wants. There are no definitive humanistic qualities to it and that is the point since Myers embodies evil. As such, at the end of the film when Laurie unmasks Myers for a brief moment it shows us that Michael Myers is a person and that perhaps, he cannot control the evil (in fact, this is actually used as an explanation in later sequels).
Classical Hollywood cinema uses the three-point lighting technique in order to draw emphasis to a character within a particular scene. Likewise, in Halloween there is a great scene where Jamie Lee Curtis’s character stands in front of the house with the porch lights serving as a backlight from behind her, the fill light from diagonally across and key light from just right of the camera shot. This shot emphasizes Curtis’s contemplative and unsure mannerisms as she gazes over at the house where her friends are supposed to be. Another important aspect involving lighting is low-key illumination, often used in 1930s horror films, but also in Halloween. There are many shots of Michael Myers where only the mask is visible. In another scene where Curtis is inside the house, the backlight is low to cast a shadow over half of her face.
Perhaps the most thematically engaging use of lighting is the scene where Annie and Laurie are driving to the houses where they will babysit. The scene begins light, gradually turns to dusk and by the end the scene is in the nighttime. All the while, Myers is tailing them in his stolen car. It reminds one of the contrasts in colors and lighting between Kansas and Oz in The Wizard of Oz. Thematically, it illustrates that the film is literally and figuratively traveling into the darkness where evil is afoot. Humans feel protected by the light, but now that the film has placed the characters within a nighttime setting, that façade of protection is no more. In fact, the end of the film where Laurie encounters Michael is shot mostly in darkness (with a backlighting of blue to emphasize Michael’s mask).
Props are also important in Halloween inasmuch as the props become either the instrument of Michael’s killing spree or ways in which the characters fight back against him. Props were vital to the hilarity that ensued in Our Hospitality, especially the ending gag with Keaton’s character bringing all the guns out of his pockets. However, the props used in Halloween are for a more nefarious purpose. The very first scene is a close-up shot of Myers at six-years-old reaching into a drawer and retrieving a large butcher knife. Then as he kills his sister, the camera’s emphasis is on the knife’s movement. Later on in the film, as mentioned before, the knife becomes his main weapon of choice. On the other hand, the gun that Dr. Loomis has becomes the ultimate equalizer against this force of evil in the climatic showdown with Michael. It is also rather haunting at the end as there is no sound, but the unmercifully loud gunshots – six in succession. Perhaps to draw attention to the overwhelming amount of force necessary to stop this incarnation of evil.
One final aspect of mise-en- scène worth mentioning is the acting itself. In North by Northwest, Cary Grant draws viewers into his character’s plight because of his acting and the expressions on his face. Likewise, Jamie Lee Curtis, as the scream queen, draws viewers into her struggle with this force of evil. One particularly haunting scene is after she discovers her dead friends; she begins whimpering with absolute terror on her face, unsure of what to do next. Then after she escapes that house, she runs around shrieking for one of the neighbors to help her. At one point she just screams, “Can’t you hear me? Oh God!” The viewer is just begging someone to help her.
The magnificent Donald Pleasence also does a profound job describing the evilness of Myers in a classic scene. His inner struggle for redemption is edged across his face as he describes the “devil’s eyes” of Michael and realizes it is his fault Michael Myers is loose. Finally, Nick Castle is famous for playing Michael Myers because of his movements in walking. Castle’s walk is slow and methodical, which makes it all that much more menacing. One of the best examples in the film of this is when Myers is trying to catch Laurie before she makes it back into the house. His walk across the street just exudes the personification of evilness.
The movement of the camera is particularly important in Halloween because the camera itself mirrors the stalking of Michael Myers with the long tracking shots of the characters. It appears as if the camera is lurking around. In classical Hollywood cinema, the shot/reverse-shot pattern based on the axis of action, is very prominent. For instance, in North by Northwest when Cary Grant’s character meets Eva Saint’s character on the train for food, the camera has a shot of Grant, then a reverse-shot of Saint and then back to a shot of Cary, as they engage in conversation, hence shot/reverse-shot. At the end of Halloween, there is a good example of a shot/reverse-shot. Dr. Loomis had just shot Myers and the camera focuses in on Laurie as she cries and asks, “What’s The Boogeymen?” and then a reverse-shot back to Dr. Loomis as he says, “As a matter of fact, that was.”, and a final shot of Laurie’s shocked face.
Other camera techniques taken from classical Hollywood cinema are the establishing shot and the eyeline matching shot. The purpose of an establishing shot is to define the overall space in the forthcoming scene. One of the most famous establishing shots is from North by Northwest when Cary Grant’s character goes in the middle of nowhere to meet George Kaplan. The resulting establishing shot emphasizes that he really is in the middle of nowhere. The beginning of Halloween establishes the location of the suburban house by looking at the house from the street and then moving around to a side shot of the house. An important reason for doing the establishing shot with a steady camera is to solidify the point of view of the film from hereon. That is, the subjective nature of the killer’s point of view. Many times throughout the film, including the beginning, the viewer looks through the eyes of Michel Myers. Thus, thematically, this moves the viewer from mere bystander to an active participant. In fact, it makes the viewer voyeuristic as well.
An eyeline match is a shot of a character looking at something off-screen and the camera follows that character’s eyes to what he or she is looking at. Stagecoach does this frequently when all the characters are inside the stagecoach engaging in conversation the camera follows the characters’ eyes. Likewise, there are many scenes in Halloween where the camera has a shot of Jamie Lee Curtis and her eyes looking at something off-screen, and then the camera reveals that she was looking at Michael Myers staring at her. For example, when Laurie is in class, she gazes outside the window and then the camera shows Michael Myers standing behind a car. The third time this occurs Michael Myers has disappeared. It is a technique used to build up suspense and dread in the film.
Perhaps though, the most salient aspect of the film’s style is the music. John Carpenter says about the music, “I screened the final cut minus sound effects and music, for a young executive from 20th Century-Fox. She wasn’t scared at all” (“The OfficialJohnCarpenter.com”). Therefore, he became determined to scare her and then he composed the score for Halloween. The iconic music is a repetitious narrative function that occurs prior to Michael Myers appearing on the screen or something dangerous about to happen. Classical Hollywood cinema uses this same technique, like in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man or the Lion, each one breaks into a song and dance number. After Michael kills someone, the music stops and silence ensues. One potent scene was when Michael Myers killed Bob, cocked his head to the side, and looked at him with no sound at all. It makes the scene more effective than had there been sound in the background.
There are also good diegetic sounds used in Halloween that serve a narrative purpose. For instance, in one scene, Laurie is singing, “I wish I had you all alone, just the two of us” and Myers is standing there looking at her in the foreground of the shot. Towards the end of the film, Myers does get Laurie “all alone”. Another example is the scene where Tommy and Lindsey are watching The Thing on the television. Then Tommy goes to the window and sees Myers carrying Annie into the house, as sounds from The Thing gain prominence. Therefore, that diegetic sound serves as a stylistic function to enhance the terrifying scene of The Boogeyman as witnessed by Tommy; as well as perhaps thematically, to suggest the horror on the television is occurring simultaneously with the horror in real life.
Citizen Kane is most famous for Orson Welles’ use of deep focus, which eliminates the need for the classical Hollywood cinema technique of shot/reverse-shot. One example is the scene where Thatcher comes to get Kane. Kane as a child remains in the background while his mother and Thatcher talk. It is one continuous shot, instead of utilizing cutting. Halloween, like Citizen Kane, diverges from classical Hollywood cinema by using deep focus. Perhaps the best scene from Halloween to illustrate this point is the end. Laurie had just stabbed Michael with the knife and presumably, he is dead on the ground. She comes back to the hallway and sits down. In the background, the viewer clearly sees Michael Myers sitting up and staring ominously over at Laurie in a deep focus shot. Stylistically, this works better than a shot/reverse-shot would have because the shot/reverse-shot would detract from the utter horror at seeing Michael Myers rising again to an unbeknownst Laurie.
To conclude, Halloween shares many characteristics in narrative form and style to classical Hollywood cinema. Those aspects include the various ways in which mise-en- scène is used to develop the narrative and the goal orientation and journeys of the three main characters. As for style, the film shares classic Hollywood cinema’s penchant for shot/revere-shot, establishing shots, and musical motifs. Naturally, the film also diverges from that form in its use of deep focus and a somewhat open-ended climax. Nevertheless, Halloween is the greatest horror film of all time, as well as a great film in general.